Owen Smith – remind you of anybody? asks Steve Beauchampé.
It has not been a great first week for Owen Smith’s campaign to become leader of the Labour Party. Shortly after Smith officially launched his bid to replace Jeremy Corbyn by claiming to be a man of the left he voted for the renewal of Trident, something unlikely to be viewed favourably by most of the party’s 500-600,000 members. Neither does it look good that from 2002, before entering parliament, Smith had worked as an advisor to Blairite former Welsh (later Northern Ireland) Secretary Paul Murphy.
From 2005, Smith had also worked for international pharmaceuticals company Pfizer, where he was paid £80,000 per annum as Head of Policy and Government Relations, during which time he lobbied for a part-privatised NHS. Later Smith joined Amgen, another multinational pharmaceuticals business.
A key component of Owen Smith’s campaign has been to call for a second EU referendum, presumably hoping that reversing last month’s vote will appeal to Labour’s massive support in England’s large metropolitan conurbations, but hardly likely to be a vote winner with those traditional Labour followers the party needs to win back from UKIP. Smith also suggested that if he won Corbyn might be made Labour Party President, even though as Corbyn himself pointed out no such post exists, nor is it in the leader’s gift to create one, and that even if it was created he probably wouldn’t accept such a role anyway.
By Thursday Smith’s hopes of defeating Corbyn were looking bleak, with news that over 183,000 people had registered to vote in the leadership election during a 48-hour window between Monday-Wednesday, with the general consensus that the majority had registered to support Jeremy Corbyn. That members of Labour affiliate organisations such as trade unions and socialist societies can still register to vote until August 8th will also probably work against Owen Smith.
Now you’d have to be incredibly naïve to think that the increasing claims of abuse, intimidation and misogyny perpetrated by Corbyn’s allies and supporters against his opponents were not being exaggerated (or worse, orchestrated) by the same elements within the party who have been trying to undermine the leader from the moment of his accession last September.
Owen Smith’s response was to appear at a campaign rally on Saturday where only cheerleading female supporters were in camera shot as he spoke, lined up behind him with a great view of the back of his body, whilst male (and other female) audience members sat in chairs facing him and with presumably a much greater chance of hearing what he was saying. For a man whose late decision to enter the race had ended rival Angela Eagle’s hopes of becoming Labour’s first female leader, this audience layout looked contrived and incredible.
At this early stage of what is going to be a very, very ugly contest, Corbyn appears the strong favourite. It’s hard to know precisely what Owen Smith currently believes in or stands for, his campaign looks as though it is being managed and manipulated by people far more powerful than he.
Despite all attempts by Labour’s NEC to disenfranchise Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters (denying a vote to anyone who joined the party after January 12th, then charging an extortionate £25 for those registering to vote last week) and the relentless efforts to undermine Corbyn by senior party figures, the fact that his support amongst the membership remains so strong is an indictment of how detached the party hierarchy has become from its supporters and activists as well as from the everyday problems and issues that face the electorate.
Between the general elections of 1997 and 2010 the Labour Party hemorrhaged almost five million votes, and between those of 1997 and 2015 186 seats. While it is arguable as to whether Jeremy Corbyn has the leadership qualities required to make the party nationally electable again, it is abundantly clear that replacing him with a Blair-lite right-of-centre supported candidate will only lock the party out of power for longer than it already has been.
Aside from the 2010 and 2015 General Elections, the 2011 AV referendum, the 2012 European Parliamentary elections, the 2015 leadership contest, the 2011 and 2016 Scottish Parliamentary elections and the 2016 EU referendum, have demonstrated that the New Labour wing of the party are serial losers in the court of public opinion.
For Owen Smith (and for that matter Angela Eagle) looks just like the 2016 version of Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper. But we should not be surprised. For almost two decades Labour’s membership fell, its democratic structures centralised power, its annual conference became a rubber stamp for policies devised by a small clique of New Labour operatives. Such concentrations of power resulted in parliamentary candidates often being chosen by tiny local groups of officials, or even imposed by central office.
With no mandatory re-selection mechanism, being a Labour MP in a safe seat really was a job for life, or at least for several decades. Birmingham epitomises this, where the First Past the Post electoral system all but guarantees the party a clean sweep of the city’s parliamentary constituencies and thus the same old faces stand and win time and again. The moribund politics that results permeates to local level where, until effectively forced out by Government inspectors, Sir Albert Bore lead the Labour group on Birmingham city council for sixteen years, during which period significant levels of postal voting fraud by party activists were uncovered.
Jeremy Corbyn’s critics within (and without) the party accuse him of being a throwback to the 1980s and unelectable. He isn’t and given the support of his MPs he may not be, whilst his supporter base, particularly in the form of Momentum, is nothing like the Militant Tendency groupings of thirty or more years ago. Arguably the real throwbacks are Corbyn’s very critics, clinging to power that they don’t deserve and for which they have little mandate.
But while they have alienated millions of voters with their pursuit of neo-liberal economics and policies that supported this, the party was decimated, replaced in Scotland by the SNP and outmanoeuvred in the post-industrial towns of the Midlands, northern and eastern England by UKIP. The notion that more of the same, be it in the form of Owen Smith, Yvette Cooper, or those such as Chuka Umunna or Dan Jarvis, will woo back these lost voters is for the birds.